Found  /  Exhibit

When the NYC Subway Was Just a Dirt Trench

Rare photos from the early 1900s show the 120-year-old system’s pick-and-shovel beginnings.

As its name suggests, Capitol Hill Books is in Washington, D.C, but within seconds into a conversation with its co-owner Hélène Golay, her roots in Brooklyn come up. “That’s kind of why I bought them,” she tells me, when we start discussing the 37 extremely rare photographs of the New York City subway that she picked up at an auction. They were made in 1901 and 1902, and record the building of the first of today’s lines: north from City Hall to Grand Central, across 42nd Street where the shuttle runs today, and up the Upper West Side. Golay will be bringing them to the ABAA New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, where they’ll be on view (and for sale) from April 4 through 7, at the Park Avenue Armory. The co-owners are asking $12,500 for the set.

Their origin is a little mysterious — they came without provenance at the auction, and there’s no photographer’s stamp or other rock-solid attribution. (There are some similar photos in museum collections, notably the New-York Historical Society.) That said, they’re likely the work of the Pullis brothers, who were hired by the city to photograph the subway as it was built. Golay looked into museum collections of their work to see if they matched, and, she says, “I didn’t see any that aligned perfectly with the collection that we’re selling. But they’re in the tunnels with the workers — it does seem that they’d been there in an official capacity, rather than as rubberneckers.”

A couple of things about these scenes are striking. For one, the images made above ground are utterly recognizable. A photograph of Union Square, particularly, drives home that the edges of the square have been redeveloped comparatively little in the past 122 years. Golay remarks that she specifically responded to that photo because she for many years took the subway — this subway — to shop at the Barnes & Noble at the north end of the square, and the building that houses B&N is itself visible in the background.